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The Art of Life


Hurrah for Carnival

Byron enters what he considered to be the true and enduring life of Venice, despite his self-dramatising laments at its degradation, by means of the Carnival. “I have hardly had a wink of sleep this week past,” he wrote to Tom Moore in 1818.

We are in the agonies of the Carnival’s last days, and I must be up all night, as well as tomorrow. I have had some curious masking adventures this Carnival; but as they are not yet over, I shall not say on. I will work the mine of my youth to the last veins of the ore, and then—good night. I have lived, and am content.

The Carnival was instituted at the end of the eleventh century, and has continued without interruption for almost seven hundred years. After a period of desuetude it was resurrected in the 1970s. “All the world repairs to Venice,” John Evelyn wrote in the seventeenth century, “to see the folly and madness of the Carnevall.” It was originally supposed to last for forty days, but in the eighteenth century it was sometimes conducted over six months. It began on the first Sunday of October and continued until the end of March or the beginning of Lent. This was also the theatre season. In a city that prided itself on transcending nature, it was one way of defying winter. Yet if the festivities last for half a year, does “real” life then become carnival life? It was said in fact that Venice was animated by a carnivalesque spirit for the entire year. It was no longer a serious city such as London, or a wise city such as Prague.

There were bands and orchestras in Saint Mark’s Square; there were puppet shows and masked balls and street performers. There were costume parties in the opera houses, where prizes were awarded for the best dress. There were elaborate fêtes with gilded barges, liveries of gold and crimson, gondolas heaped with flowers. The Venetians, according to William Beckford in the 1780s, were “so eager in the pursuit of amusement as hardly to allow themselves any sleep.” In this season, everyone was at liberty.

Evelyn described the Carnival as the resort of “universal madnesse” with “the Women, Men & persons of all Conditions disguising themselves in antique dresses with extravagant Musique & a thousand gambols.” But Sir Henry Wotton believed that there was method in the madness; the Carnival was used for “diverting men from talking of greater matters.” Another English observer believed that the promotion of pleasure and even of vice, was one of the “main hinges” of the Venetian government. It is, perhaps, the old truism of bread and circuses. But the festivity was directed at strangers as well as natives. It encouraged trade, of course, and the Carnival supported seven theatres, two hundred restaurants and innumerable gaming houses. But the show of joy was also a show of strength, an illusion designed to emphasise the wealth, the independence and the impregnability of the city.

There were bull-fights and bull-runs through the streets. There were firework displays; the Venetians were well known for their skill at pyrotechnics, with the reflection of the coloured sparks and flames glittering upon the water. There were rope-walkers and fortune-tellers and improvisatori singing to the guitar or mandolin. There were quacks and acrobats. There were wild beast shows; in 1751 the rhinoceros was first brought to Venice. There were the elements of the macabre; there were mock funeral processions and, on the last day of the Carnival, a figure disfigured by syphilitic sores was pushed around in a barrow. Here once more is the old association between festivity and the awareness of death.

Venetians dressed up as their favourite characters from the commedia dell’arte. There was Mattacino, dressed all in white except for red shoes and red laces; he wore a feathered hat, and threw eggs of scented water into the crowd. There was Pantalone, the emblem of Venice, dressed in red waistcoat and black cloak. And there was Arlecchino in his multi-coloured costume. There were masked parties and masked balls. There were masked processions through the streets of the city. The Carnival in fact became intimately associated with the wearing of the mask or volto.

It is first mentioned in public documents of 1268, when masked persons were forbidden to gamble. It came out of the East. The most popular form of the Carnival costume was the bauta, a mantle of silk or velvet that covered the head and shoulders; a three-cornered hat was worn on top of the hood of this garment. The face itself was covered by a half-mask, of silk or velvet, black or white, or by a white beak-like object known as larva. There were some masks that had to be held by the teeth, thus prohibiting speech. Secrecy and silence consorted. The masker, male or female, also wore a black cloak known as a domino. The women tended to wear black masks, and the men white. Even if the disguise of the mask was less than perfect the identity of the masker was never to be revealed; he was always addressed as “Signor Maschera.” It was all highly ritualised, as befits a ceremony that has its roots in ancient worship.

By the eighteenth century, at the very latest, the masks had become indispensable. During the six months of the Carnival everyone in the city wore them—the rich and the poor, the shopkeepers and the priests, the magistrates and the prostitutes. The priest was in fact denounced by his parish if he did not wear a mask in public. The dignitaries of the city wore them in public ceremonies and processions. Only the money changers were not permitted to wear them. It was reported that a masked mother was seen suckling a masked infant. Even the beggars wore masks.

Altogether it was a curious spectacle. There were assignations. There were betrayals. There was spontaneous sex behind doors and in the corners of alleys. Pleasure is addictive. It can have all the elements and attributes of a fever. Pleasure is a dream. One Venetian described how “women of every condition, married, maid or widow, mingle freely with professional harlots, for the mask levels all distinctions; and there is no filth they do not practise, publicly, with their paramours, young and old.” There were also less salacious diversions. Three or four women in masks might go up to various acquaintances and in squeaky, assumed voices tease them for their well-known weaknesses. It was a case of dressing-up and pretending, a game beloved by children of all kinds. The word bauta itself is supposed to derive from the childish lisping of “bau … bau.” And it was often said, of course, that the Venetians were essentially children. Addison believed that the intrigue and “secret history” of the Carnival “would make a Collection of very diverting Novels.” Venice always seems to prompt the telling of stories. The Carnival offered the possibility of another world, and of another reality. It represented a second life for those who had been, or who had felt themselves to be, cheated in the first one.

The masked balls were known as i festini, and were open to anyone wearing a mask; their location was marked by a lantern garlanded with flowers. Within could be heard the music of the cello and the spinet, and the guests danced the minuet and the gavotte. The kind owners of the house would then go among their guests and demand their fees. Nothing was free in Venice. There were various rules concerning the use of the mask, promulgated through the centuries, but they were generally disregarded. In the nineteenth century, for example, it was decreed that no reveller might touch or walk with a masked person without being given express permission. How was that to be policed?

It is appropriate to speculate about the nature of the mask, so associated with Venice that it has become its unofficial emblem. There are masks, carved out of stone, still to be seen on the bridges and arches of the city. The making of masks, even in the twenty-first century, is one of the most profitable of all Venetian trades. Goethe wrote from Venice that “masks which in our country have as little life and meaning for us as mummies, here seem sympathetic and characteristic expressions.” Somehow the mask fitted the Venetian countenance. It became expressive. The mask is an emblem of secrecy in the city of secrets. It suggests that the city itself might, like the maskers, lead a double life. Venice was known for the greed and duplicity that existed beneath the festive or aesthetically appealing surface. It is a city of doubleness, of reflections within reflections, in every sense. The mask is a sign of ambiguity. It has been said that nothing in Venice has a single meaning; everything, from art to government, is open to endless interpretation. The derivation of “carnival” is itself ambiguous. Does carne vale mean “farewell to flesh” or “flesh mattered”? Vale may have either signification. Some derive it from carnem levare, or the giving up of meat. It is also perhaps significant that the mask was known as larva; it suggests the secret hatching of life, and the birth of a butterfly from a grub. So the Carnival also celebrates the city as a place of protean identity and delight. Ruskin glimpsed “Proteus himself latent in the salt-smelling skin of her.”

The mask itself has perverse connotations. With the black bauta, and the black tricorner hat, it has associations with death. It might conceal a grinning death’s head. It might conceal nothing at all. Contemporary Venice has been described as “an empty mask.” So Sartre wrote that “when I look at the Palazzo Dario … I always have the feeling that, yes, it is certainly there, but that at the same time there is nothing there.” There is nothing left to find. There is nothing left to describe.

The Carnival also served a social purpose. In a city where the roles of patricians and citizens were well defined, the loss of identity was often very welcome. In the course of their duties the patricians adopted the appearance of severity and gravity as the mark of their public status. The Carnival allowed the release of the social and personal tensions that must inevitably have spread. The Carnival thereby stabilised the people and the institutions of Venice. It encouraged the feeling of community among all the people. It afforded a glimpse of the eternal principles of brotherhood and equality. It was a reminder of the presumed original equality of the Venetian people when they first sought refuge in the lagoons. So the Carnival became a form of public renewal. In other cities, and other states, the celebration of the freedom of carnival life became the occasion for riot or even rebellion. This never happened in Venice.

In the late 1970s, after a period of decline, the Carnival was revived for the islanders of Burano. It then migrated to Venice itself, where the officials quickly realised its value as an enticement to visitors. In this endeavour they have been wholly successful. It is now a Carnival of, and for, tourists. It is of course heavily commercialised, with corporate organisations sponsoring different events. In 2008 it was in fact entirely given over to private hands, and was organised by a company provisionally known as Venice Events Limited. The head of the casino in Venice announced that “sponsors will have at their disposal rooms at the best hotels for their guests, tickets, exclusive tables and deals with the casino.” But the Carnival was always a commercial operation, aimed in part at strangers. It has simply fulfilled its essential nature, while in the process becoming unreal and empty.

There were other fairs and holidays. There were trade fairs, such as that of the Festa della Sensa in the middle of May, which were essentially celebrations of trade and of commerce. The mercers of Venice put on display their finest silks, and the goldsmiths put out their finest plate. There were elaborate processions staged by various guilds, where the distinction between commerce and religious ceremony was hard to find. The children blew trumpets of glass. The shops were ablaze with lights and mirrors. The brethren of the guild of S. Rocco held up a banner on which was inscribed “Copious riches, cheerful labour, public joy.” A painting by Gabriele Bella shows the fair of the late 1770s, with Saint Mark’s Square covered with innumerable shops, tents, booths, stalls and awnings, so that it resembles an Arabian souk.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Venice became known as the city of performance with the multifarious mountebanks and jugglers and acrobats. Saint Mark’s Square was famous for hustlers and buskers of every kind. They were freed from oppressive legislation in Venice, and so they flocked there. They were dressed in outlandish gear, singing and dancing on the especially prepared stages. The quacks among them would make elaborate and splendid speeches on the benefits of their elixirs and “soverayne waters.” There were illusionists who would pretend to cut open their arms, with much blood, only to reveal that their flesh was untouched. There were snake-charmers and tooth-pullers and magicians who according to Coryat performed “strange juggling trickes as would be almost incredible to be reported.” Othello is suspected of drugging Desdemona with “medicines bought of mountebanks.” The Venetian kind was notorious throughout Europe.

The Carnival was also the home of voracious and incessant gambling. At the end of the twelfth century the first public gaming tables in Europe were erected by Niccolò Barattieri; they were his reward for raising the two columns of the piazzetta, and his tables were placed between them. It soon became the place of judicial execution, and is still known as a conventionally unlucky spot. But the fever spread. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there were various attempts to organise, and to supervise, the games of chance. It was found necessary, for example, to pass statutes forbidding gambling in the courtyards of the ducal palace and in the basilica of Saint Mark’s itself. Yet nothing could stop the obsession with gaming. Playing cards were not invented in Venice, as is sometimes claimed, but the Venetians soon enjoyed something like a monopoly on their manufacture.

There were private ridotti or gaming places in many grand houses, and in the houses of courtesans. An edict of 1598 referred to places “with gaming, drunkenness and other dishonesties” to the manifest shame of the state. Servants were asked to denounce masters who set up gambling tables. The patricians were not alone in their predilection for gambling. The people of Venice were also addicted, with dice and cards played in taverns and squares, in wine-shops and barbers’ shops, upon bridges, and even in gondolas. They were ready to bet on anything, from chess and chequers to skittles and rackets. One of the most popular forms of gambling involved the results of public elections; money would be placed on one candidate rather than another, and bookmakers set up stalls in the Rialto. Crowds would gather to see who had been elected to the senate, or to the council of ten, but they were not being public-spirited. They were interested only in the outcome of the race. So the authorities of the city decided to control, and to profit from, that which they could not prevent. By the sixteenth century the ridotti or public gaming houses were already being licensed for various games of hazard and what was called “honest conversation.” Then in 1638 the Venetian state financed a public gambling house, the Ridotto, which became the paradigm or prototype for all the casinos of Europe.

In the early eighteenth century gambling was seen as an essential element of the Carnival. It also became the sport of the patricians, run in expensive clubs and under strictly commercial auspices. It was said that “to risk nothing is a thing for a man worth nothing.” So gambling was transformed into a sign of magnanimity and nobility. One English visitor to a gaming house noticed that “the crowd is so great that very often one can hardly pass from out of one Room into another; nevertheless the Silence here observ’d is much greater than that in the Churches … to see in how much Tranquillity and Gravity very considerable Summs are lost is really so very Extraordinary.…” The Venetian gentleman was supposed to suffer loss or gain with the utmost indifference.

There were other public games of chance. At the very beginning of the sixteenth century a city lottery was established. It was a way of turning the attention of the populace from the private diversions of the gaming table into the safer realm of state enterprise. It was of course also a means of raising money. A lottery was conducted at the Rialto, in which the prizes included clothes and furniture, paintings and jewels. In 1590 a lottery was instituted to meet the costs of the newly rising Rialto bridge; tickets went on sale for two crowns, and the prize was one hundred thousand crowns.

When the winners of the public lotteries were announced, everything else came to a halt. Priests, prostitutes and poltroons were all at the mercy of lottery fever. Pietro Aretino noticed that those under its sway employed the filthiest and most blasphemous language to express their feelings. The losers believed themselves to have been “disembowelled” and “crucified.” Yet still they came back for more.

Gambling is a necessary occupation in a city of merchants dependent upon the sea. For the merchant there was always the prospect of enormous future wealth. Yet it depended on the shifting sea. A man might be wealthy beyond measure on one day, poor and ruined on the next. The rise of gaming in the city was often noted as a sign of increasing Venetian decadence, but of course it is the necessary consequence of the atmosphere and ethos of the city. It has been claimed in this book that Venice was the first home of capitalism in Europe; the essence of capitalism lies in risk-taking, otherwise known as financial speculation. Gambling reproduces the essential mysteries of economic fluctuation in a smaller and more intense space.

And then there is the importance of the concept of fortune in Venetian public affairs. The Venetian state was always being urged to avoid fortuna belli, the fortune of war, in conflicts where there could be no certain victor. There is some evidence to suggest that, in the course of the fourteenth century, a less sanguine attitude towards fortune and to risk-taking spread among the people. Fortune, too, is the goddess of the Venetian gaming table. “Now all things are subject to fortune,” the Venetian historian Bernardo Giustiniani wrote in the late fifteenth century, “and empires are daily changed and transferred. It is fortune which plays this game, fortune which must be obeyed.”

When the greatest of all public gaming houses was closed in 1774 by the order of the government, a contemporary reported that “the whole population grows melancholy … the merchants drive no trade; the mask-makers perish of hunger; and the hands of certain impoverished nobles, accustomed to shuffle the cards for ten hours a day, have now grown shrivelled and shrunk; in truth vices are absolutely necessary to the life of a State.” Gaming was the lifeblood of Venice, just as trading had once been. When all the risk of empire had gone, when all the risk of a great commercial life had disappeared for ever, what was there left to hazard but cards and dice?

The sports and games of Venice have an especial meaning for the students of state power. One famous Venetian pastime, for example, was the “human pyramid.” It was known to the Venetians as forze d’Ercole, the labours of Hercules, and consisted of men climbing on each other’s shoulders, with the number at the base slowly tapering to one man on the summit. It was usually performed upon a raft of boats, thus emphasising an uncanny resemblance to the structure of the state itself where through a complex machinery of association the doge surmounts the people. The human pyramid was also the human image of Venice. It was a feat of equilibrium.

The concepts of lightness and balance are of immense consequence in Venice. So it is perhaps significant that one of the most famous amusements of the Carnival was known as volo della colombina or “the flight of the dove.” A rope was tied from a moored boat to the top of the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square, from which another rope was secured to the ducal palace. An acrobat, dressed as an angel, then climbed to the top of the campanile before sailing down towards the palace and scattering flowers as he descended. In 1680 there was a more daring feat. A boatman, known as Scartenador, ascended by rope to the campanile on horseback.

There were many games and sports, including rackets and fencing; there were wheelbarrow races and horse races and gondola races. In the sixteenth century there was a game known as “Balloon,” a kind of aerial football; these games, and others like them, had a reputation for violence. The young Venetian patricians enjoyed shooting matches. All of these amusements were forms of competition, at the end of which a prize was awarded. The Venetians were a highly gregarious, and therefore highly competitive, people. This was not true of Londoners in the same period, for example, who preferred to attend bull-baitings and bear-baitings where there were no true winners and no awards.

There was one game, however, that more than any other symbolised the stability and strength of the Venetian state. It was known as la guerra dei pugni or the war of the fists, fought between the inhabitants of the various territories and neighbourhoods. There were the Rialtini and the Cannaruoli, the Bariotti and the Gnatti. But the largest division of all lay between the Castellani—in the western parishes of Cannaregio, Castello, S. Marco and Dorsoduro—and the Nicolotti in the eastern parishes of S. Croce and S. Polo. The dominant factions were the fishermen of the Nicolotti and the shipbuilders of the Castellani. Their internecine rivalries have already been described. A team from each of these territories met for battle on a chosen bridge, while thousands of spectators lined the streets and houses beside the canal. Dumplings and chestnuts were served to the crowds by street vendors. It was a glorified fist-fight in which the object was to hurl opponents into the water and to gain possession of the bridge.

This became the sport of Venice, according to one sixteenth-century chronicler, “so beloved and esteemed by all the Venetian people, as well as by foreigners.” Visiting monarchs were invited to witness the proceedings, as the Castellani and the Nicolotti vied for mastery. When Henry of Valois visited Venice in the summer of 1574 two armies of three hundred men did battle for his amusement; it was said at the time that it was a way of displaying to the Frenchman that the people of Venice were “very fierce, indomitable, headlong and uncontrolled.” They wore helmets and carried shields. Many of them came armed with sticks of tough rattan. The fighting could last for several hours. Such violent delights often had violent ends. Many competitors were maimed or injured; they were sometimes even killed.

It was of course an occasion of ritualised violence, in which all the brute force of the populace could be expended; popular energy was being exploited for the purposes of spectacle so that it might not be harnessed for any more dangerous cause. At times of holiday, when the fights took place, there was no other subject of conversation among the people. The cause of possessing the two paving stones on the “crown” of the bridge became an obsession. The victors became heroes, and the vanquished were lost in shame. The winning parishes would light great bonfires in their campi, and arrange impromptu dances. The best fighters became famous all over the city, with their portraits hanging in the houses of their parish. They were given honorifics such as “Ditch Jumper” and “Eats the Dead” and “Destroyer of Boldness.” They considered themselves to be “soldiers,” although of course Venetians were never soldiers in a military sense. That may be one of the explanations for their pugnacity at home.

The first record of such fighting is found in 1369, but the first battle upon a bridge seems to have been staged in 1421. The roots of the contest are much older, of course, dating from the first period of exile when the groups from various cities made their homes upon separate islands in the lagoon. There were then real wars for mastery, of which the battle of the fists was a token. On the islands that eventually comprised Venice itself, it was said that there was a “landward” people looking towards the mainland and a “seaward” people looking towards the other islands. The canals were at one time real boundaries, the water between the small plots of land or parishes, which would suffer more than ritual transgression.

Many factions still clashed in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Venice. The denizens of one parish might gather on a bridge and shout insults at the people of the rival parish; the youth of a parish might even initiate rapid “raids” on the camp of a rival, and throw sticks or stones at the natives. The experience of living in such crowded conditions fostered an intense spirit of territorial loyalty; it was said, for example, that the most partisan supporters of la guerra dei pugni were those who lived at or near the boundaries of their parish. The battles were also a way of celebrating the role of bridges themselves in Venetian communal life. They were the very axis around which the city turned. The city has always been an emblem of intense struggle, of the battle for life, and in The City in History Lewis Mumford alludes to “a bloody ritual fight with clubs between the forces of Light and Darkness held within an Egyptian temple precinct.” Civilisation always retains elements of barbarism. That is how it survives. The essence of the city itself lies in competition and aggression.

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